Hi everyone

 

London, UK to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia completed on the 24th November 2015.

Distance driven: 17,740km

Days: 107

Lowest temperature: -37 degrees

Highest altitude: 5,042m (Mount Bridget, North Tajikistan)

South East Asian loop: Bangkok – Kuala Lumpur, via Cambodia and Laos

Distance driven: 10,144km

Days: 99 days

Highest temperature: 42 degrees (Laos)

Deepest dive: 30.2m (Koh Tao, Thailand)

Ship home from Kuala Lumpur to Felixstowe, UK on the 27th May 2016

Total trip distance driven: 27,884km

 

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A brief foray into Indonesia

I don’t think we appreciated quite the size of Indonesia. It’s a big place! It’s nearly as wide as the USA – just with a lot of sea in between the islands! As such, three weeks was never going to be enough, but we can’t really complain.
We decided to pick a couple of places, in order to try and see them ‘properly’, rather than risk some of our final weeks on this epic adventure feeling rushed. As such, we caught a flight to Bali, and started in the legend that is Kuta. Now famous for all night bars and slightly dodgy dealings, on paper it wasn’t our cup of tea, but we didn’t really have any issues with it – mainly as we were in bed by 10…! 

A great deal on Agoda secured a lovely hotel with pool (and a massage area!), which was a perfect way to counteract the chaos of Vietnam. The hotel security even managed to stop us being scammed out of about £100 by some particularly dodgy money changers..! Phew. For the record – don’t risk the street guys in Bali. Even if you’ve been travelling for ages and reckon you are good enough to spot their sleight of hand… They’ll still get you! We were very lucky that the hotel helped us out. 

The Gili islands were next on our list. Gili Air to be precise. What a wonderful place! Chilled, no vehicles, a good (but not over the top) selection of bars and restaurants, and a whole load of dive centres! Turtles were the aim of the game! We dived with Manta Dive, and were impressed with their kit and set up. Good discounts online on their prices, and best of all, lots of turtles, both green and hawksbill. Amazing!! Seeing them just glide towards you out of the blue is just incredible!

         
We also got wind of something that seemed too good to be true… But for once, wasn’t! There’s a dive centre on Gili Air called 7Seas, and every Wednesday at 16:00 they do a special dive called Dive Against Debris. It’s basically a litter pick dive. You volunteer.. Grab a mesh string bag, some gloves and some scissors, and go diving… For free….! The group of us cleared 19kgs of rubbish from the reef, and saw a turtle, some barracuda, and loads more whilst we were at it. We couldn’t believe it. Free diving, and feel good factor! What more could you ask for??

A few days of sun, salt and sand sorted us right out, and soon we were back on Bali for the next big tourist destination – Ubud. We had heard great things: cafés, food, spas, shopping, and good vistas. If I’m honest, we we’re bit disappointed. It was crammed full of people – July is high season after all, but there were masses of locals too. The roads were jammed, and after the Gilis it was like being back in Vietnam! Tom also commented that all of the shops sold average ‘silver’ jewellery, or pure tat. A saving grace however, was a patisserie called ‘Caramel’. No more needs to be said.

Two major highlights from Ubud: 

1) Seeing Olivia and her family. Such a treat! Can’t believe that after years hiding away in Devon, we finally tracked you down in Bali! Thank you for a lovely day or two. See you in Wales!

2) Coffee plantation tours. On the main road heading north out of Ubud. Hire a bike and go solo. Free tours of the coffee plantations, including the civets. It was really interesting, and the tasting selections are generous. About 12 different flavours of coffees and fruit teas – with paying for a sample of cat-poo coffee extra. For those of you who are as ignorant as we were about a week ago, cat-poo coffee AKA Luwak Coffee, is the most expensive coffee in the world. Basically, a civet eats the fruit from the coffee bush, but the bean remains undigested and passes straight through. Some lucky people then collect the poo, clean off the beans, roast them, then grind them to make coffee! The really expensive stuff is collected from wild civets, but most is now farmed, which has some major ethical issues with these animals in small pens being force fed fruit. However, as an experience, we had an excellent day! 

    
By this stage, the lure of diving with manta rays had caught our attention. They are fairly common (for manta rays!) in these waters, with known cleaning stations and feeding grounds near a number of Indonesian islands. Komodo (of dragon fame) is supposed to be pretty special, but it was out of our budget at such a last minute, so we decided to head for an island just off the south of Bali called Nusa Lembongan. 

  
We broke our one rule of diving – don’t dive expecting to see one particular animal. It ruins the dive if you don’t find it!! For just over an hour, we swum/drifted helplessly in the strong current, being disappointed to see a turtle, a giant moray eel, huge triggerfish, tens of stingrays, banner fish…. It was awful. How can one be disappointed to see all of that?! But we were. And we were getting increasingly cross with ourselves for breaking our golden rule. And then, just as we turned for the boat and our safety stop, it appeared. Somewhere between a swoop and a glide, a manta ray cruised past us and up to the cleaning station. Then another. And then another. Straight past us, mouths open. Truly incredible grace and beauty. We were so lucky. 

   
We managed to resist the lure of the water the next day, and placated the bank balance by cycling round the island (and the neighbouring island). Take note: it’s not flat. After an afternoon of sweating and cursing, we retired back to our room clutching a bottle of water in desperate need of a shower. Our evening activity was provided by Marine Mega Fauna, a marine conservation group who were giving a talk entitled ‘The Secret Life of Manta Rays’. It was really interesting to learn more about these amazing animals that we have been fortunate enough to see. 

   
Next stop: Borneo! 

Top 10 over landing essentials 

With the Beaut back in Blighty, and just about functional (MOT pending), I thought it a good time to publish a list of our favourite bits of equipment and kit from the trip. Take them all with a pinch of salt – if there is anything that we’ve learnt from this trip, it’s that different people have different opinions! And that different kit is appropriate for different vehicles/people/conditions. 
And so, in a vague order (but not really), here are our top 10 over landing essentials:
10. Lockable storage box. Ours was on the roof. We found it vital for locking away kit that we weren’t using often. Particularly useful on a long trip where your down isn’t so essential in South East Asia, but will be in the Pamir Mountains!

9. Table and chairs (not the cheapest). Flat space is vital. Really vital. And yes, you could make do by sitting on something else, but we used the chairs in particular pretty much every day.

8. Kettle. Yes, you could boil water in a pan. And we did, sometimes. But if you are cooking for more than just one or two, then putting the kettle on is just better. 

7. Pressure cooker. We read about using a pressure cooker on another blog somewhere. Amazing. It made our life so much easier as it speed up cooking, and made one pot meals a doddle – especially useful if it’s so cold outside that just leaving something alone bubbling away whilst you all huddle together inside is essential to morale! We were unconvinced until we bought it. Now it’s made the list!

6. An auxiliary battery (installed on a domestic circuit). So important that some overland vehicles have two. You don’t want to turn the key in the morning, to discover that you’ve drained your battery the night before. You also don’t want to be worrying about it every time someone plugs their phone in!!

5. Coleman duelfuel two ring burner. It worked brilliantly for us, running on petrol. Probably would have run even better if we’d cleaned it more often! 

4. A decent head torch (each). We all used ours everyday. A head torch is one item where if you buy cheap, it usually breaks. 

3. Having more than one electronic charging point. To be honest, I don’t think you can have too many. The cigarette lighter to USB connection was what we used the most. Don’t even bother with the cables that come with lots of different attachments. They break if you look at them. 

2. Delorme InReach explorer. This is one area where you will need to decide for yourself what is most appropriate for your trip. We were thrilled with our choice. It gave us the peace of mind of having an SOS button; it gave us the option of sending free (once you’ve paid the monthly fee!), “all OK” messages; we could send personalized text messages to predetermined numbers to explain a problem if we needed to; people could send us messages if needed; anyone could see where we were if they wanted by logging in online, which gave peace of mind to worried families, and a source of banter to friends (haha you’re in the middle of a desert… I’m in a pub…); and you get a beautiful trace on a map of where you’ve been at the end of it! All in all, we loved it, and would choose it again. For completeness, our other options (before choosing the Delorme) were a SPOT tracker, or a Sat phone. To be honest, it was between the SPOT or the Delorme for us. Tom argued for a sat phone for a long time, but eventually realised it’s limitations when Jon posed the question: “but who would you ring that could help…?”

1. The winner. Our Lifesaver jerrycan. This was a last minute addition to our kit (arriving literally the week before we left) after Tom had watched a TED talk about the technology. Makes pure drinking water from anything. Literally anything. The guy in the TED talk uses pond water mixed with dog poo. And yes, the company went briefly into administration over false advertising (their system could only filter 99.99% of stuff rather than 99.999% as claimed), but that was good enough for us, and we didn’t get sick from water for 9 months. It is hideously expensive, (about £250), but saved a lot of money on bottled water! I reckon it actually saved us money in the long run. We teamed ours up with a charcoal filter to remove any tastes/colourings from the water which we would recommend. Makes the filter last longer too! 
Other things to note:

Having a professionally installed roof rack gave us great peace of mind. Brownchurch in London were brilliant for us (don’t get them to do anything other than roof racks though!). We were on and off the roof more than we thought.

Nav free (open source map software). The iOS version is called maps.me and it was (generally) brilliant. We met loads of travellers who were using it. It’s free, it’s accurate, and it works offline. 
Regrets: 

We found ourselves wanting a wind up table lantern. Eating / preparing food by head torch light is fine, but does tend to attract the flies to the face after dark!

We bought a HiLift jack for the trip. We thought it would be versatile, and essential off-roading kit. In reality, we didn’t use it once; it was bulky, and very heavy. We used a small bottle jack every time instead. A prime example of rookies buying an excellent bit of kit that just isn’t appropriate for their vehicle, or their trip! Ah well! 

North Vietnam. The good and the bad of mass tourism

We spent a day or two exploring Hue – the citadel really is very impressive, and there are ongoing restoration projects to try to repair the near complete destruction left over from the bombing and fighting in the American War. Time was however, not on our side and, with the tourist Meccas of Halong Bay and Sapa still to come, we pushed on up to Hanoi. It was here that Agoda sprung it’s latest surprise. There are Halong Bay tours on Agoda! Heavy discounted and last minute, and really nice! Essentially, we got a 4 star, two night, three day tour for the price of the cheapest tour you could get. It was on the Heritage Line Ginger boat, and it was superb. The food was outstanding. As in, 5 course meals kind of outstanding. Our only complaint was with the price of the alcohol, which was ludicrous, but fortunately we had predicted that and came prepared! I’ll now stop gloating about it, and let the pictures say the rest.
   
    
    
 A new(ish) direct overnight bus from Bai Chay to Sapa meant that we could avoid splitting up the next stage of travel in Hanoi. It even went all the way to Sapa proper, which used to be impossible in a big bus. They must have improved the roads, although you could never tell! 

The town of Sapa is, to be brutally honest, a bit of a dive. It’s heartbreaking really, as it is simply an example of tourism ruining a place. Oh don’t get me wrong, I’d go back in a heartbeat, as the surrounding scenery is stunning, but that’s in spite of the town itself, which is loud, a bit dirty and full of all the bad bits of tourism: hundreds of touts, constant hassle, lots of cheap knock off shops, and a large number of fairly average restaurants that all offer the same thing. 

  
The reason why Sapa is so popular is due to the trekking opportunities in the surrounding hills. Day trips are simple and rewarding; home stays in the nearby villages are easy to arrange; and the mountain of Fansipan is there for the hardcore. I do however, feel that tourism has gone too far here, and will soon ruin the very reasons why Sapa became so popular in the first place. A large number of women from the local villages follow you around all day, desperately trying to get you to buy their wares as souvenirs, or insisting on acting as guides to take you to their house in the village. The problem is that a stunningly beautiful dyed tablecloth just isn’t vastly practical for a backpacker, and what about if you wanted to not be bundled into a group and escorted along a road into the next village? Or even, heaven forbid, do some exploring on your own?? Even the challenge of Fansipan is no longer the same, as the world’s longest cable car can now take you straight to the top! I’d imagine that would take some of the elation out of a hard two day slog. 

We did, however, manage to throw off the ladies, and escape into the hills on our own for a couple of truly beautiful day treks. It was wonderful, if a little steep at points!! 

   
    
 Keep it on your list, but pray for Myanmar – I hope somewhere like Hsipaw doesn’t go the same way.

Hoi An

Hoi An gets it’s own post. It is that good. If I’m perfectly honest I’m not sure why we enjoyed it quite as much as we did. I’ve been trying to tell myself that it’s not because of the 9p beer (well… Probably 15p since Brexit), but it does add such a gloss to an already good day when you can sit down with a beer that is so cheap that you almost feel like its a crime not to drink one. Or two. 
Let’s be clear – not all beer in Hoi An is that cheap, you do have to seek it out a little bit, but not very hard. It’s called ‘fresh beer’ (or Bia Hoi everywhere else in Vietnam), and it’s a lager that is brewed that day, and has to be drunk that day. What a shame! 

The most touristy thing to do in Hoi An is to go to the tailors. It is a well publicised tradition. We went to Lana, as liked the woman inside who we had a chat with. It was also the cheapest of the top rated ones. Tom got a 4 piece suit made up (the extra pair of trousers is for the Chubb-rub) which he was particularly pleased with – even if it doesn’t leave much room for expansion due to excessive cheese eating..

The river front is charming, with lanterns lit up along the streets at night, and the famous old Japanese bridge filled with throngs of people. hundreds of restaurants make choosing just one each night quite a problem, but I would particularly recommend the Secret Garden if you are feeling in need of a treat! 

The beach isn’t far away either, an easy cycle through flat paddy fields. It is not particularly busy throughout the day, and there are plenty of sun beds to hire for a small fee (usually a beer!). In the evening it’s heaving with locals who flock out of the city.  

  
We had an absolutely wonderful time here, and even bestow Hoi An with the honour of being one of the (few) places we’ve been on this trip where we could see ourselves living, rather than just visiting again. Top marks.

South Vietnam

Vietnam is a huge country. Sure, it’s not in the league of Kazakhstan or Russia, or even Mongolia, but it’s still pretty big – particularly as the temptation is to try and see the whole country in one trip. We had 3 weeks, and to be honest, with any less time than that, I wouldn’t even attempt it. The most common thing that people seem to do is to split time in Vietnam into two, and usually allow about two weeks for each half. One of the main reasons for this is transport, as it takes at least two or three night buses to get from Hanoi (in the north), or Ho Chi Minh City in the south. The other reason is Hoi An. It’s about 5 hours by bus south of Hue, and is so wonderful that it must get included on a trip to the north, or a trip to the south. 
As such, we tackled the south of the country first, and slowly worked our way north.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is a sensational introduction to Vietnam. By that I mean that it is a huge assault on the senses! Loud, chaotic, and teeming with people, it’s a lot of fun, provided you can get used to crossing the roads! 

We only spent a couple of days here, with the tourist regulars of the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi tunnels top of our list of things to do. Both give an extremely one sided view of the ‘American Aggressor War’, and neither hold anything back. The War Remnants Museum used to be called the ‘American War Crimes Museum’, and the exhibits haven’t changed with the rebranding. It is 3 floors of photographs and information of the horrors of war, including a large section on chemical warfare, and leaves you in no doubt of who was responsible. 

   
 The Cu Chi tunnels (tours easily arranged from Saigon) are another one sided account of the war, and we both ended the day feeling troubled. Not, however, in the usual way that one gets after visiting a historical site of terrific human tragedy, where the overwhelming feeling is often remorse, and desperation to prevent such horrors from happening again. This time it was a sense of disappointment, tinged with disgust at the way it was presented. I didn’t get the impression that there was any regret about the loss of life on both sides, just a sense of pride at the way that the Viet Cong was able to kill as many South Vietnamese and American soldiers in the most gruesome of manners. Most memorials or battlefield sites that I’ve visited in the past try and remind you that we must do everything we can to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Here it was not like that – it more seemed like a challenge. And the on site shooting range was just crass and distasteful. 

   
 We’d booked on an open tourist bus, though Sinh Tourist, and it worked faultlessly, and was excellent value for money. First stop – Dalat.

High up in the hills, Dalat is steeped in French colonial influence, and has been used as a place to escape Saigon for centuries. It is mercifully cool in the day, and almost even cold at night. You definitely don’t need aircon! For those of you who’ve been struggling in the 40 degree heat, it’s paradise! The climate also lends instead perfectly to some adventure sports, with a lot of hiking, and canyoning on offer. We stayed at the Dalat Backpackers Hostel, and we honestly couldn’t recommend them highly enough. The cheap, spacious double rooms are supplemented with free breakfast, free beer (for an hour), and a free dinner, as well as a hefty discount off their canyoning tour. A great place to meet other travellers, as well as booking Easy Rider motorbike trips.

  
The day we spent canyoning was a definite highlight. Good quality kit, a surprisingly good emphasis on safety, and guides who also want you to have fun, all added up to a great day of abseiling, waterfalls, jump-offs and zip lining. The free beer at the end just added to it! 

  
Dalat is also Vietnam’s wine capital. It’s the only place in South East Asia where we’ve found wine that is remotely any good at all. True, the cheapest stuff is fairly unpalatable, but the ‘premium’ or the ‘superior’ bottles are well worth a try and not expensive (about £3-5 per bottle from the shops; double that in restaurants). 

Well worth a stop. 

Georgetown

Mention Georgetown or Penang to anyone in Malaysia, the reply is always the same: “Ahh good food”. Surprisingly enough, with a response like that, it was firmly on our radar as somewhere to visit. 
Along with Malacca and Singapore, Georgetown was a key administration centre in British Malaya – it was actually the first place that the British landed on the peninsula. Technically a British protectorate for over a hundred years, Captain Light and the East India Company cleared back the jungle and founded a town that still remains an important port for trade. 

As a result, it is probably the most multicultural place we’d been to, possibly since London. Although now mainly Chinese, Georgetown is a real mix of religions and cultures, with mosques, churches and Hindu temples all in close proximity. Street signs are in English, shop fronts in Mandarin, and bus stops in Malay. And that’s before you even get into Little India…

Most of the cheap hostels and hotels centre around Love Lane, a street of historically dubious morals – wealthy businessmen bought properties here to house their mistresses. That said, it’s a nice enough place, with coffee shops, a few bars and a sprinkling of restaurants. We even found a 24hr laundrette! 

It is safe to say that we dined like kings for the best part of a week, although, we must confess, not really on Malay food. Yes, the Nasr Goreng was delicious (quite how they manage to encase an entire meal in omelette is beyond me!), but I wouldn’t say it was any better than others we’d had elsewhere. No, we firmly ate ‘multicultural’, and used restaurants as staging posts for exploring different parts of town. 

  
A stroll along the waterfront and around Fort Cornwallis, the walled British outpost, in search of the tourist information office (a treasure trove of information for once) uncovered a food fair in the park by the Town Hall. An excellent start! As Kat remarked, this part of town looked almost exactly like parts of Portsmouth – even the bricks used to make the fort were of a similar colour. Admittedly, the palm trees blowing in the wind were a bit of a clue that Southsea wasn’t just round the corner! Dinner that night was at ‘That Little Wine Bar’, where Kat continued her education in red wine. Wine has been so poor in SE Asia that we’d practically written it off, but this place was a delight and the service was excellent. Did I mention they did a cheese plate? Oh, and BAKED CAMEMBERT. Perhaps the most remarkable thing though was that neither of these things were the highlight of the evening. A glance at the specials board saw ‘Ravioli…. 35RM’, and we overheard the table next to us ask what was in them. The answer was met with stunned silence, and a double take back at the board. 35 Ringgit for Lobster, Scallops and Truffle Ravioli. The liberal sprinkling of grated Parmesan didn’t hurt either. It was, (potential over claim warning), probably the best single dish we’ve eaten on the entire trip. 

Another day saw us head for Penang Hill, which at 860m, has spectacular views over the whole island, and across to the mainland. A 4km road starting from the very pleasant Botanical Gardens winds its way steeply uphill and makes for some welcome physical activity in our largely sedentary existence. It was strange to be walking up switchbacks rather than driving them! There are several footpaths through the woods as well, but in the heat of the day, wearing flip flops, and with monkeys eyeing up our rucksack with glee, we opted for the most direct route! When I say the most direct route, I mean the most direct hiking route. There is of course, the funicular, reputed to be one of the steepest in Asia, and the masses of people at the top made it clear as to which was the more popular mode of transportation! We felt slightly pleased with ourselves, and much more deserving of the inevitable coffee and cake… 

  
The highlight of Penang Hill for us was dinner at David Brown’s. It had initially came to our attention as a possible site for afternoon tea, but a glance at the menu gave us other, more grand ideas. “Oh my God, they do Beef Wellington”. Oh yes, oh yes they do. It was sublime (and with a 30% off Groupon voucher, didn’t completely break the bank!).  

A wander around Little India was an obvious choice for another evening. With a different style of music blaring into the streets (to blend in with the car horns), brighter colours and more exotic smells from the hawker stalls, it is a distinct change from other parts of town. Needless to say, we were looking forward to dinner. Kapitan’s was our choice, and it had come recommended to us. Fully 24hrs and with huge neon signs, it was a busy place, and really good. It was also probably the first Indian we have been to where neither of us got a curry! Quick, cheap, and very tasty. Perfect. 

No trip to Penang would be complete without some sort of recognition of it’s importance to the Empire. What better way to do that, we reasoned, than to combine a trip to the museum with a spot of English Afternoon Tea at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel? Founded by the same Sarkie brothers who later started Raffles in Singapore, the grand buildings have a commanding view of the waterfront. We consider ourselves to be slight experts on afternoon tea, and the general consensus was that this one was ‘bloody good’. Oh, being cultured is sometimes such a hardship…

  

The Perhentian Islands – possibly the best island paradise so far

 And trust me, that’s an achievement. Read on to find out why I’m making such a big claim!
Right up on the north east coast of Malaysia, close to the border with Thailand, lie the Perhentian Islands. There are two: a big one, and a small one. They have proper names of course, but most people here just refer to them by their size. Ironically, there isn’t actually much difference… But still, we went to the smaller of the two, and absolutely loved it. 

   
 Like many of the islands in SE Asia, there are two distinct sides, with distinctly different vibes. We chose Coral Bay, rather than the more popular Long Beach. Diving is pretty much the main activity for both sides of the island (it’s ludicrously cheap) but we spoke to someone who’d done their PADI course at a resort on Long Beach and said it had a bit of the Koh Tao factory feel about it. Maybe it was just because we were doing fun dives, but everything seemed a bit more chilled on Coral Bay. 

We stayed at Maya, which is pretty much the cheapest place there is. You can even camp there if you want to save even more. I can’t remember staying in a friendlier place. There are hammocks all over the place, and our first night turned into an impromptu ‘bring your own booze’ party (where we could finally offload the rest of our Laotian boxed wine…!), with free food laid on by the owner. 
The diving varied from average to the best we’ve done so far. We dived with two dive shops, Quiver and Ombok, and much, much preferred Ombok. Although slightly more expensive, (still only RM80 per dive – about £14) we just had a much better time, especially with Alif our dive master. I think Kat summed it up by saying that if she ever wanted to do her dive master, she’d go to them. We loved it. Diving with black tip reef sharks on our last morning was just the jewel in the crown – amazing.